Police recruits and veteran officers could benefit from more frequent firearms training and a wider use of Taser stun guns, according to a study of the New York Police Department’s shooting habits released on Monday.
The study, by the RAND Corporation, was commissioned in January 2007, about seven weeks after a Queens man, Sean Bell, died in a hail of 50 police bullets. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at the time that questions about the department’s effectiveness and training required an independent review.
RAND researchers raised the phenomenon of “reflexive shooting,” or contagious shooting, in which one officer’s gunshots spur a fusillade of bullets by others in the area.
Though they could not say whether the phenomenon occurred more often than in the past, they recommended that the department add “reflexive shooting scenarios that include a stimulus or the sound of gunfire, to sensitize officers to cues that may not be reliable, and to teach them that such cues may generate unwanted responses.”
In addition to training, the RAND group studied how the department conducts internal reviews of police shootings.
It studied 455 shootings that were adjudicated in 2004, 2005 and 2006 by the department’s Firearms Discharge Review Board. The study found that while the board had “exemplary procedures,” and a record of producing quick and fact-filled reports with an eye toward the legalities of those shootings, it could benefit from more analysis of the tactics used so that lessons could be learned.
In 25 of the 455 shootings, the RAND group found that officers might have been able to end confrontations more quickly by using a less lethal device — like a Taser, which uses jolts of electricity to disable an assailant — before those encounters escalated to a point where more deadly force was necessary. The police killed someone in 3 of the 25 cases.
The authors of the 114-page study suggested the department carry out a pilot program in selected precincts to expand the availability of Taser guns with a goal of decreasing civilian or officer casualties.
At a news conference to outline the findings, Mr. Kelly strongly suggested that he would embrace the recommendation for a pilot program for the Taser devices, though he said he still had to distribute the report, and its “well over a hundred recommendations,” to those in his senior command.
He said he was aware that critics had assailed the use of Tasers, saying some officers tended to use them overzealously.
But he said that by Wednesday, roughly 520 new Tasers — which are not a substitute for a handgun — would be available to about 3,500 sergeants on patrol, a shift from having them kept in certain patrol vehicles and in the hands of officers in the elite Emergency Service Unit.
“This was a study that’s focused on what we can do,” Mr. Kelly said. “It was not a panacea; it wasn’t going to solve all issues as far as shootings are concerned.”
The report also called for expanding hands-on, scenario-based training, said Bernard D. Rostker, a senior fellow at RAND, who presented the findings at 1 Police Plaza. The Police Academy now offers two six-month programs annually for thousands of officers. Mr. Rostker said, “It would be better” if more frequent and smaller classes were held.
On requalification for officers on the job, Mr. Rostker said New York’s officers requalified twice a year, as was the national standard, but suggested that one of the sessions include more “street-oriented” and real-life situations. He did add that the restraint used by New York officers was noteworthy compared with that of other departments nationally.
Mr. Kelly said the department’s antiquated police academy would be replaced by a more comprehensive center in College Point, Queens. Construction is expected to begin by the fall of 2009. It would include the ability for computer simulations and “tactical village” training, and various firing range simulations.
“It all sounds good to me, but as far as I can think, we have all presented such things before,” said John C. Cerar, a retired deputy inspector who was the commander of the Police Department’s firearms training section and who said he had not yet read the report. “I wish the department could give a little bit more to training.”
But he acknowledged the department’s hurdles. “With the facilities that the department has, it is limited because of the significant number of personnel they have to train,” he said.
Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the report represented a lost opportunity for the Police Department and the city.
“This report does nothing to answer the major questions that many New Yorkers were asking after the Bell shooting, including why officers are firing so many shots at civilians and why blacks and Latinos seem to be such a target for police shootings,” Mr. Dunn said. “Simply put, this is a major disappointment.”
The RAND analysts — who studied only shootings adjudicated by the internal board — did not study the Bell shooting. Federal officials have asked the Police Department to wait before conducting an internal inquiry of the matter.
Mr. Rostker said that data from police departments in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago, among others, was compared with data from New York. However, he acknowledged that the races and ethnicities of those involved in police shootings were not a part of this study.
RAND officials said later that the group was not asked to look at personal characteristics like race and age of perpetrators or victims in police shootings.
“We did not, explicitly, in 455 cases, line it up in terms of ethnicity,” Mr. Rostker said.
* By AL BAKER , NYT, June 10, 2008